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Dialogue, a Freestyle Acrylic Painting of a Bull and his Shadow

Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso once said, “I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else." This rings true for my freestyle acrylic painting, Dialogue. It began as an idea for a new abstract art piece, but it grew into something more exciting.

When the desire to paint grabs me, I often skip any preparation. When inspiration strikes, I find myself standing in front of my workspace, and I must create. A few weeks ago, I looked down and splashed acrylic and ink on canvas to see where it would go.

In traditional Chinese painting, there are two fundamental styles:

  1. Gongbi (Chinese: 工笔) is meticulous painting, where the artist carefully recreates a realist-like picture.

  2. Xieyi (Chinese: 写意) is interpretative and expressive. Xieyi also refers to a freestyle painting.

At first, as I experimented with my acrylic and ink on canvas, I thought it might be a Root Series painting. However the more I immersed myself in the art and gave it my energy, a different theme emerged. I entered into a dialogue with my art where I gazed into my past.

When I posted my freestyle acrylic painting on Instagram at the start of June, my followers confirmed the emerging theme. Because the Chinese way of appreciating art continues after the calligraphy brushes rest, the dialogue I also have with my audience adds to the painting.

The evolution of Chinese freestyle acrylic painting

Lin Liang of the Chinese impressionistic school in the fifteenth century gave rise to Xieyi, a freehand style of painting. Now, it also applies to a broader form where artists like me, prefer to use chi and rhythm to paint, rather than focusing on representational detail.

Dialoguebegan by spilling black ink onto the canvas. I did not prepare it with gesso first as I did with Roots in the Water. The gesso came next though. Applying the gesso over the first layer of ink created the fog-like, shadowy effect.

Next, I applied the brown layer of acrylic paint and then the lighter orange. With each layer, I used my brushes to push the ink and color here and there. There was no plan to follow, no outline. Instead, I went with my instinct, what felt right when the energy flowed.

In the moment, I might choose a different Chinese brush or apply a different type of brush stroke to achieve the desired effect. While I only used a few layers of acrylic and ink on the canvas, the intricate brushwork creates depth and energy.

In the extract below, you can see how I merged the brown color with the ink beneath. Different lines, splashes of ink and a variety of tones give the image a three-dimensional feel.

Seen close-up, the circular shape near to the top of this extract creates the appearance of a tree knot. Contrasted next to a hint of white space, it forms from a mix of textures, ink tones and curved strokes over the horizontal lines on the layer beneath.

Shulin Sun, Dialogue

Spilled acrylic and ink on canvas

Ink pouring is an ancient Chinese painting technique that encourages spontaneity. What I discovered by experimenting and spilling acrylic and ink on canvas was a happy accident.

While my original aim to create a Root Seriespainting may have gone awry, the result was imaginative. Rather than plan my picture and be disappointed when it does not work out, I prefer to have an open dialogue with the artwork and let the ink guide me.

Controlling ink pouring is impossible. When it spills onto the canvas, you have to move with it and let the painting take you on its journey. As you can see in this second extract, as the art began to take shape, it took the form of a bull peering at his reflection in the mist.

A dialogue between a bull and its shadow-self

In traditional Chinese culture, the bull or ox is a respected animal. It is also a favorite subject matter in traditional Chinese art. The bull is strong. It works hard to plow fields and pull carts, but it asks for little in return.

When you see the painting in full, you may see more than one bull. The lighter bull stands in the foreground with a darker bull behind it. To the right of the painting, the darker bull has its head down towards the ground. Perhaps it rests its forehead against a calf.

To the audience’s left, the lighter bull looks into its reflection, its shadow-self. What does it see?

Traditionally, the bull in China also symbolizes ordinary people. Like the bull, I too have worked hard with my head down. During the rustication movement, I worked long days as a sent down youth. Since then, I have continued to work hard and long, experimenting with my art.

Freestyle acrylic painting expresses the inner-self

Like the bull, I too can have a dialogue with myself and learn from my experiences. Now, as I look back at my past, I learn about my strengths and weaknesses. Just like there are physical layers to my painting, so too are there multiple layers of meaning in my art.

With freestyle acrylic painting, I can pour my energy, self, and creativity into my work. It gives my abstract art style the freedom to evolve. As well, it begins a dialogue that continues long after the paint has dried.

Shulin Sun

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